The Development of Monasticism Prior to St. Anthony the Great to St. Benedict of Nursia

By Dcn. George Zgourides

Monasticism is a formalized religious movement in which members exercise spiritual discipline above and beyond those expected of the laity (and sometimes the spiritual leadership) of their religions. The monastic individual, who is typically ascetic and celibate (unmarried), separates from the rest of society either by joining a society of others who profess similar ideals, termed a cenobite or common community, or by living as a religious recluse, termed a hermit. Although first applied to Christian groups, the term monasticism is also now used to refer to similar practices of Buddhist, Hindu, and Taoist monastic persons.

The word monasticism derives from the Greek monachos, which means living alone. Yet this etymology describes only one aspect of monasticism, as many monastic persons live in communities. Still, living alone is an appropriate descriptor given the fact that monastics remain unmarried.

Orthodox monasticism as an institution is based on the Christian concept and ideal of perfection. Rooted in New Testament Christianity, early Church monasticism equated perfection with flesh-denying asceticism, and became a visible means of expressing the maximum love of neighbor and God. Yet only a few particularly disciplined persons could truly live in such a way as to attain such perfection. Consequently, the monastic regulations were not absolute requirements but rather firm directions for those called to follow ascetic exercise. As Jesus Himself noted: some men make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:12), but this gift applies only to those who are able to receive the same. In short, monastics have traditionally been considered a class of Christians with a special spiritual calling.

During the latter part of the 2nd century and beginning of the 3rd century, asceticism and mysticism combined to form the basis of Eastern monasticism, especially as affirmed by Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215) and Origen (c. 185–254). One of the earliest monks and a religious hermit, St. Anthony of the Desert (c. 251–356) is revered as the founder of organized Christian monasticism. His Rule of order was one of the first attempts to establish guidelines for monastic living. He began the ascetic life at age 20 and eventually withdrew into total solitude on a desert mountain near the Nile River. Here he withstood extreme temptations of the devil, but later emerged in 305 to instruct nearby hermits in the ways of monasticism. With the end of Christian persecution in 313, Anthony established a monastery between the Nile and the Red Sea. This same monastery exists today.

By the 4th century, monasticism had developed into an stable institution within the Church, which was also expanding into the cities of Egypt. Early ascetics moved from populated areas to establish themselves in deteriorated or abandoned settlements, caves, tombs, and desert wilderness areas. As a result of the latter, the monastics struggle with demons intensified, as the desert became associated with the place of refuge of demonic forces.

In the early 4th century (about 320), Pachomius (c. 290–346) established a monastery in Tabennisis near the Nile, first uniting monks living in a community under the authority of a superior, otherwise known as an abbot. This first monastic cloister was located north of Thebes in Egypt, and consisted of groups of about 40 monks under their respective abbots. Pachomius soon devised a monastic Rule to regulate cloistered life. He explicitly forbade monks to become priests in order to avoid potential ambition for power.

For the rest of the 4th century, monasticism quickly spread outside of Egypt. During his exile to Germany (for opposing Arianism’s heretical doctrine claiming that Christ the Son is not of the same substance as God the Father), bishop Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296–373) carried Pachomius’ monastic Rule to the West. He penned The Life of St. Antony (Vita Antonii), which described desert hermitic life, including the noble struggle of monastics with the demons in order to pursue a life of Christian perfection. Clearly by this time, the Church approved of and promoted monasticism.

A Cappadocian Father of the 4th century, St. Basil the Great (c. 330–379) is known for his collection of epistles that were incorporated into Orthodox canon law, as well as his contributions to the Liturgy of St. Basil. In 360 he also assisted the Cappadocian bishops at a synod in Constantinople to defend the Orthodox faith against the heretical Arius. However, Basil is perhaps best known for his widespread influence upon Byzantine monastic community life. As bishop of Caesarea he penned works on canon law, theology, and monasticism. With a company of friends, he also formed a monastic community in Pontus, and in 357 he toured the monasteries of Egypt. He designed a monastic Rule combining asceticism and mysticism that was to become the norm for later Orthodox monasticism.

Basil’s influential writings came out of his practical concerns as bishop, pastor, and monk. His ascetic writings, including Shorter Rules and Longer Rules, became cornerstones in Eastern Christian monasticism. In fact, the Rules of St. Basil are still practiced in 20th century Orthodoxy.

A primary difference for Basil was his preference for monastic communities over hermitic living, so that brotherly charity could more easily be practiced and experienced. And unlike Pachomius, Basil the Great allowed certain monks to become clergy. Even today, while most monks of the Orthodox Church are typically lay monks, some abbots are ordained priests who can administer the sacraments.

Western monasticism, having built upon Eastern models (Orthodox), traces its foundation to St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480–550) of 6th century Italy. Benedict was the founder of the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, and he is also considered to be the father of the Western model of monastic life. His Rule of order quickly spread across Europe as the norm for monasticism. According to the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great (Pope Gregory I), Benedict was a holy man who easily attracted disciples. His character, as Gregory noted, was one of maturity, wisdom, firmness, sanctity, and love.

Benedict began his ascetic life as a hermit, but later embraced the community model of monasticism. His Rule established a one year’s probation, to be followed by a vow of obedience to the Rule and abbot of the monastery in which the monk would reside for the rest of his life. Benedict developed a concise form of monastic government, which was to be led by the elected-for-life abbot, who in turn appointed his own leaders, including prior, steward, and novice master. Benedict prohibited ownership of material goods, and precisely ordered daily activities and worship services. He also attempted to balance his monks’ prayer time with work and study.

Today in the West, the original foci of monasticism (meditation, contemplation, and prayer) have continued to decrease in importance, while special educational, missionary, scholarly, and political foci have increased in importance. A few monastic orders, such as the Benedictines and Carmelites, have managed to preserve the ancient character and purposes of Roman Catholic monasticism in the 20th century.

[Editorial Note: But while preserving the ancient character and purposes of Roman Catholic ideals of monasticism, they have more often than not - distanced themselves from the roots of Orthodoxy which is the very roots of Catholicism and monasticism itself) as a result of not only the split of 1054 A.D. when the Roman Catholic Church left the true faith, but having bed themselves down more and more with their having become more involved in those things of political importance, prestige and scholarly standings.  These things do not of themselves aide in the effort on the spiritual realm of life having more an impact on the material realm].


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